by Barry Basden
It’s late October when I pick up Megan and the kids from her mother’s doublewide in Amarillo. I don’t even unpack my duffel bag. A change of station for all of us. We load up the Chevy, including a U-Haul rack on top, and pull out of the trailer park headed for Ft. Lewis, a post still not far enough away from Fallujah.
We drive straight through to a Super 8 in Baker, Oregon, candy wrappers and soda cans littering the floorboards. Early next morning we have Denny’s breakfast special–pancakes with odd, orange-colored butter. I sip black coffee and study the map for the shortest route.
On the road again, we don’t stop for meals or even a restroom break unless we need gas or one of the boys has an emergency. Otherwise, they pee in a can I cut the top off of with my Army-issue opener. We suck up miles and I scan the dial for something besides static. Oh look, kids, a horsey. Megan uses the glove box as a tray and slathers mustard on baloney and white bread. I keep the Chevy a steady 75 while we eat. She feeds me chips like a mama bird. One of the kids spills soda. We’ll hose it out later.
The afternoon is gray and fading when we make one last pit stop and turn off the Interstate onto a road that’s a green line on the map. It looks like the quickest way to Tacoma. We climb through dark trees, a dusting of snow melting on the windshield, the wipers on intermittent. Swish pause swish pause. The road narrows and turns white, iridescent. After a few miles, there are no tracks. I put the heater on defrost to clear the fogged windows. It shouldn’t be that much longer.
We drive on for half an hour, gradually decelerating in strange, empty silence until we pass a sign on the left: PUT CHAINS ON HERE. I slow down some more. The rear end gives a little shimmy and we pass another sign: RANGER STATION. No lights and no turn off that I can see, just snow-covered rocks and trees on the left and nothing but a rail-less void beyond my right fender.
My gut tightens.
Whimpering in the backseat, silence beside me. We’re chased through the gloom by a growing dread I thought I’d left in the desert. Snick, snick, the wipers are working hard. I glance in the rearview at four big eyes. “We’ll be there soon,” I say.
Maybe not, I think, but then we reach the summit. I ease the car over the top and start downhill, pumping the brakes, eyeing the drop-off. Toward the bottom, on wet pavement again, the wheel pulls steadily to the right. I stop at the first wide spot, wade through cold slush in my tennies, and find what kept us in the road back on the mountain–a right rear flat, one of three retreads, unraveling and flopping loose. I move enough stuff out of the trunk to find the jack and the bald spare. I look for lights in the distance before squatting to get at the lug nuts.
I’m thinking we will rent a modest trailer and try to rediscover what it’s like to be a family. I will stand formations in the morning mist and train for battle again and wait for my next deployment orders. At night Megan will hold me and we will listen to rain falling on the tin roof. We won’t talk about the future.
Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country with his wife and two yellow Labs. His writing has appeared in many fine places. He is coauthor of CRACK! AND THUMP: WITH A COMBAT INFANTRY OFFICER IN WORLD WAR II and edits Camroc Press Review.